To set up this story, have a listen to this song by The Police, originally written in 1983.
We'll wait ...
Having listened to the lyrics, you get a really good idea of just how much tracking Google is doing on you from your Android device. Every step you take? Check. Every move you make? Check. Every place you stay? Check. You can likely add several others in there as well, according to a new report from Quartz.
It all revolves around a rather obscure app found on all Android phones called Location History. You don't ever have to open the app or even deliberately turn it on, but it is also part and parcel with several popular features that require Location History being active - it is opt-in - to work properly, such as getting local restaurant recommendations or getting you around bad traffic in your area. Google Assistant uses it, as does Google Maps and Photos, each asking you in a different way if it can turn on Location History. So, unless you never use those features, it is probably active.
In an experiment to see just how much data is being recorded and sent back to Google's servers, Quartz took three different Android phones - a Samsung Galaxy S8, a Google Pixel 2, and a Moto Z Droid - each running different versions of the OS. Instead of connecting to a wireless network, a portable Internet-connected Wi-Fi network was created to intercept transmissions and network requests from Location History that would normally go to Google.
Here's a list of just some of the information captured that Google gathers:
- A list of types of movements that your phone thinks you could be doing, by likelihood. (e.g. walking: 51%, onBicycle: 4%, inRailVehicle: 3%)
- The barometric pressure
- Whether or not you’re connected to wifi
- The MAC address—which is a unique identifier—of the wifi access point you’re connected to
- The MAC address, signal strength, and frequency of every nearby wifi access point
- The MAC address, identifier, type, and two measures of signal strength of every nearby Bluetooth beacon
- The charge level of your phone battery and whether or not your phone is charging
- The voltage of your battery
- The GPS coordinates of your phone and the accuracy of those coordinates
- The GPS elevation and the accuracy of that
Of course, we aren't naive. The capability to track movements and data has been around for some time. But the depth of the tracking is eerie, even more so when you realize this is all data that the government could get access to if Google was ordered to share.
Google's response was to specifically state that Location History is opt-in. “With your permission, Google uses your Location History to deliver better results and recommendations on Google products,” a spokesman told Quartz via email. “For example, you can receive traffic predictions for your daily commute, view photos grouped by locations, see recommendations based on places you’ve visited, and even locate a missing phone. Location History is entirely opt-in, and you can always edit, delete, or turn it off at any time.”
But the drawback is you lose some functionality of many apps that you may rely on to use that information.
So in the end, you can delete the app, don't allow any app request to access your information, or just acquiesce to the fact that Google - and likely other tech companies - are subtlely telling you "I'll be watching you."